Homeless student finds ways to cope

In November 2013, things took an unforeseeable turn for one current OCCC student — leaving her and her young son homeless.

“We had a life,” she said. “We had a path we were on. And then life happened.”

The student, who asked to remain anonymous and will be called Amy for this story, said life had never been exactly easy.

For years, Amy had been a full-time caretaker to her husband, a double amputee. She also was coping with her own injuries from a car wreck at the time.

Then, she said, she awoke one morning to find her husband having a heart attack. Amy said she tried to save him but couldn’t. Paramedics later said by the time she found him, it was already too late.

Still, she said, she continues to have post traumatic stress from that incident.

Amy had been out of the workforce for years and, suddenly, her family’s one source of income was gone forever.

She said her set of marketable skills was limited and, more than anything, the responsibility of caring for her teenage son rested solely upon her.

“I literally was found, in the middle of my life, disabled,” she said — and it wasn’t long before she and her son had to leave their home with their futures uncertain.

For the most part, the two of them were able to stay with family and friends. But not always. With her son sent away to relatives one summer, Amy made the choice to take lodging at an area shelter.

“I don’t want to drag my family or friends down in this process,” she said. “There’s places you can go that are funded for those purposes. So, I did stay at the Family Rescue over the summer.”

She said when a new school year approached for her son, the two moved in with friends again. Soon she began school too, at OCCC.

Alongside the work she did in class, she said she worked to get herself and her son into a permanent home.

She said it was only a “little sprint” from September 2014 to the beginning of March 2015 that she and her teenage son were able to live in Section 8 housing in Oklahoma City.

Amy said that didn’t last long.

“We got into housing but we just had to move out,” she said.

Amy had found her new neighborhood more frightening than the prospect of homelessness when a gunfight erupted in front of her house one night. Afterwards, she said, she and her son eagerly forfeited their new home.

“I told [housing authorities] that I’d rather not have Section 8 if it means I’m going to stay somewhere that’s unsafe,” she said. “I got out on Friday. By that Monday two people had been shot in that area, and one was dead.”

Currently, she and her son are staying with friends and family again, and staying as close to their respective schools as possible, she said. Things aren’t easy, Amy said.

“Getting back and forth to school is difficult even though I have a car.”

And, she said, with a child, things become even harder.

“I’ve taken his education on myself in getting him to and from school because there’s no set place where he can get on the bus every day or walk from school since it’s always changing.”

She said maintaining a focus on academics during this transitional period has been strenuous for both of them.

“The hardest part is having that place in time where you can just push all of that situation out of your mind,” she said. “It is an ever-pervading thought that gnaws away at you, not knowing what you’re going to do or where you’re going to stay.

“Not only are you dealing with the personalities at school. You’re dealing with the personalities of the people in whatever situation you’re in outside. Those combined make it difficult to get an education,” Amy said, “If you’re staying with somebody or you’re in a shelter, there’s multiple distractions.”

She said OCCC has in many ways become a rare place of solace; something somewhat crucial to academic success.

“Here you have the study rooms on campus and you have the library, and there’s different areas around like the couches and things that allow you to kind of pull yourself out and get yourself into a more comfortable environment with less distractions.

“This becomes home.”

Amy said the campus has offered more resources than she can recall.

“Student Support Services is definitely helping with counseling, and they help with hooking you up with different organizations and resources around town.

“I am grateful that OCCC has understanding professors too,” she said, “They’re willing to work with you when you have life difficulties. I don’t ask for any breaks.

“I want my education and I want to do whatever is required of me but I also want them to understand.”

Student Support Services Counselor Jenna Howard said homelessness among OCCC students is all too common.

“We would love to say we have a place for them but we don’t,” she said.

Howard said Student Support Services offers what resources they can.

They’ve also produced a Community Resource Guide to help direct students toward off-campus resources and opportunities available in the community off campus as well.

“Our hope is to help the student get those basic needs because it is hard to go to school when you don’t have food or you’re not sure where to stay,” Howard said.

“[A lot of the] students I’ve talked to … are living at a shelter. I did talk to a student that was living in his car for a week until he got financial aid.

“Student Support Services talks with the students [who] are homeless and try to find out what their needs are,” she said.

Howard said students struggling with their housing situation can sometimes find their way into temporary housing through Student Support Services.

“What we do is contact, talk to the student,” she said, “and help them contact those places to see if there’s a bed.”

Howard said there are more available, convenient resources on campus than many realize.

“We have the Recreation and Fitness area.

“So, a lot of times I’ll encourage students to take showers if they need to take a shower,” she said,

“There’s also day-use lockers.”

Student Support Services also can help students work out transportation issues, Howard said, working out bus routes, schedules and fees. And students who might otherwise go hungry can be directed to local food banks, she said.

Amy said, while there is help out there, being homeless is humbling to the point that taking help is sometimes difficult. Sometimes, it’s impossible, she said.

“It leaves you powerless. It sort of makes you feel helpless.”

Amy said she doesn’t talk about it much. Judgment and pity are often just more unwanted side effects of the situation, she said.

“It’s not that I’m out there partying and drinking or doing drugs and not paying my rent,” she said.

“It’s just that there were real-life situations.”

Amy said she and her son are pushing on though and new things are certainly developing.

“Basically, my next step is just to try to get into a house.,” she said.

“I’m doing everything else necessary to just function for daily living but the stability is key to education.

“You have to be somewhere stable. You need a place where you can process your school work rather than just the horrible stuff.”

Amy said for now, Section 8 isn’t on the table for her.

“Because of the shooting I got out of the home that Section 8 provided before a year was up — so they are terminating me,” she said.  “And I’m appealing that action.”

Recently Amy has applied to enter low-income housing near OCCC and is awaiting a decision on whether she and her son will be accepted.

New resources have come to light, she said, and during her last interview with the Pioneer, she said things were looking up.

To contact Ethan Cooper, email pioneerphotog@occc.edu

To contact Jorge Krzyzaniak, email seniorwriter@occc.edu

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